Online learning: The new normal in tertiary education

August 12, 2020
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AND so it is four months since the deadly virus shuttered the world of Nigerians. I had left campus with a promise to my HOD to come back next week. That was in March and as I write this in August, I am yet to see the man. And I am yet to see the classroom, either.  But I have been seeing my students. Seeing, as in, seeing them on videos, hearing their voices and cracking our usual jokes. Thus, thanks to the decision by management at Caleb University to adopt e-learning soon after the Federal Government announced total lockdown as a stringent measure to mitigate the spread of the corona virus, the physical gap between staff and students has been somewhat filled by virtual encounters. When the idea was broached to staff, it was novel to me. But when I started seeking more information on the approach then being suggested by management, I felt somewhat ashamed: other institution across the globe have been practicing this form of e-learning for long. In other words, Nigerian tertiary institutions have lagged behind in e-learning, until COVID-19 came and forced us to accept what is now the new normal. I enjoyed the series of trainings that prepared us for the task ahead, trainings that introduced us to new skill sets for dealing with various scenarios in the online class. Yet, like anything innovative, there were awkward moments in the first two weeks but we soon mastered the hiccups.

Now, four months after, having now competed a semester of study using the e-platform at Caleb, it is possible to review the innovation. Let me start with the downsides: poor network connectivity, poor power supply, absence of physical touch’ to teaching and lack of concentration by students, handling practical courses, dealing with exams.  Poor network connectivity is a phenomenon in Nigeria with our notoriously poor technological infrastructure. We experienced it during our classes; downtowns on the system. But we also managed to beat the challenge in the unique Nigerian style: get more than one networks so that if one fails, you insert the other ones that can link you up. After all, the joke out there is that mobile phone manufacturers introduced the double SIM phones to deal with the peculiarly of their Nigerian market. And truth be told, the hours we must have lost to this experience were far, far lower compared with the ones we used for positive interactions. Thus, if there are arguments about network issues as a barrier to effective e-learning, for now, adopting the multi-network subscription method would be a handy solution while we look up to government to wake up and do the needful in that regard.

And lest I forget, for the platform at Caleb, there was no need for you to fret if you missed out due to network issues: every class was recorded and students and staff have access to the conversation. Which would also deal with the issue of power supply. Yes, to deal with the issue of power supply, I had to spend more money to power my generating set in order to meet up with classes whenever PHCN did what it does better; holding power supply instead of releasing it for our use. I speak from the point of view of a teacher who will be paid a salary at the end of the month, but what of the students or more specifically their parents who have to bear the brunt of buying three SIM cards, buying data and also supplying power? For all of us, there remains only one answer: it was a sacrifice. This being the first time we would experiment with this mode of teaching, we bore  the pains of poor power supply  with an understanding that we needed to match up with the global community where e-learning has been a fashion for decades, that we needed to do something to help our students deal with the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to the global learning system, that we could justify the claims of Caleb as an institution committed to innovation. And we did!

Caleb has emerged now as one institution with an unbroken academic record, notwithstanding the challenges posed by the pandemic. What again? Absence of physical touch and lack of concentration by students. From my experience, the former was a non-issue and the latter purely a matter of individual commitment. I probably couldn’t have enjoyed my Feature Writing Class where Eniola would take me to task on the need to build her up in using humour in her writings better, the Editing class where Precious has begun to use her exposure to photo editing software even to do some small business better, Newspaper Management class where Timilehin and Remi would always fight  over ideas while I looked on from virtual space, better,  if  these were under brick-and mortar. Or the postgraduate classes on Specialised Reporting, Public Health and Communication. The Teams App offers great innovations for online teaching and learning, indeed. Like I said, concentration is a personal issue that speaks to self-discipline more than classroom enforcement.

And we had the opportunity of being taught by Professor Esan, from her base in the United Kingdom. That is another gain of virtual learning. It is much easier for institutions to bring in expertise from across the globe without panting over logistics to host them and take care of them. We examined out students Final Year Projects online and there couldn’t have been perhaps a better opportunity to learn, both for students and faculty, from all the professors in Nigeria and abroad who joined the platform for the assignment. It was a ‘glocalised’ engagement that impacted greatly.We are still dealing with exams, and even if not, it would be difficult to discuss and debate such integrity-laden issues in the open freely. But suffice to say that like the saying that the white man who made the pencil, also made provision for an eraser. In other words, there are provisions for several imagined scenarios during examinations using the online platform. And that also applies to teaching practical courses. Thus, the adoption of e-learning at Caleb, and other institutions, is commendable.

Next month new students will resume, and the new normal will continue. It is an opportunity worth exploring to lower the huge number of candidates who write JAMB and post-UMTE every year but yet cannot gain admission; not because they failed, but because there are no spaces for them in the brick and mortar public and private schools. E-learning will remove this issue. Even in the area of fees, e-learning is expected to reduce fee, although Harvard has argued against this, insisting there is no reduction in the quality of its faculties that provide training for the students online. But that argument needs to look at what is removed from institutional expenses when students’ accommodation, use of office space etc are no longer in the picture. Caleb has decided to refund students who paid accommodation fees but couldn’t use the facility due to the lockdown. And for internet issues, while government cannot ask the network providers to enhance their capacities since they are operating with their own funds, government can still ask them to give special rates on data to students, to relieve the spending on data. Or better still, government can give a monthly allowance to students for data purchase. That will be part of their own share of the national cake. Without being satirical, NDDC can do that, conveniently, given what we have seen them do with palliatives during the lockdown!

I end this with a quote from Olabisi Deji-Folutile, whose work, Looking beyond the brick-and-mortar classroom in Nigeria   (https://frontpageng.com/looking-beyond-the-brick-and-mortar-classroom-in-nigeria/?fbclid=IwAR31UXgbO1uPy5kg_sgu-ASh11Acyltn_g6JTMhZGJYxl9TO0a2BTRtFvAI)  inspired me to do this: Our tertiary institutions’ administrators should be  absolutely committed to this virtual project. School managements should use their internally generated revenues to fund this project while government provides the required assistance for the expansion and development of the facilities in all its schools for effective online delivery.  Certainly, face to face learning is a valuable experience, but in today’s technological world, students should be allowed to have more learning opportunities. Online education is here to stay; any institution that ignores this fact is doing so at its own peril.

In all of these, I have not spoken about how stressful it was for me sitting at my table for hours each day I had lectures or how sometimes I had to teach beyond the normal time. It was a sacrifice for the New Normal.

  • Oyeleye, PhD, teaches Communication studies at Caleb University, Imota, Lagos State.

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